Evolution and Eugenics in American Literature and Culture, 1880-1940: Essays on Ideological Conflict and Complicity

Evolution and Eugenics in American Literature and Culture, 1880-1940: Essays on Ideological Conflict and Complicity

Evolution and Eugenics in American Literature and Culture, 1880-1940: Essays on Ideological Conflict and Complicity

Evolution and Eugenics in American Literature and Culture, 1880-1940: Essays on Ideological Conflict and Complicity

Synopsis

American scholars of literature explore how US fiction represented and used ideas promulgated by Charles Darwin in 1859, and the subsequent movement to improve the human race through selective breeding. Among the authors they consider are William Dean Howell, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, William Faulkner, Mary Austin, and Erskine Caldwell. Distributed in the US by Associated University Presses. Annotation (c)2003 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

Excerpt

When Charles Darwin published the origin of species in 1859, he presented a theory of descent from a common origin that challenged Western assumptions of theology, time, and human existence. Though he centered his observations and collected evidence on organic life, the flora and the fauna on Earth, the implications for the origin and development of human life and for humanity's view of itself were awesome. Most people in the twenty-first century take for granted the overwhelming evidence in favor of the validity of evolution, for the advances in sciences have verified that life on Earth is many millions of years old and that primates and human beings share most of their dna. However, in Darwin's time, his theory of origins and "descent with modification through natural selection" (Darwin 1985, 435) shattered religious and societal complacency even while it excited researchers across the sciences. After 1859, Western ways of seeing the world and the nature of life were never the same. in 1894, Benjamin Kidd in his second American edition of Social Evolution summarized the extent of that influence: "One of the most remarkable epochs in the history of human thought is that through which we have passed in the last half of the nineteenth century. the revolution which began with the application of the doctrines of evolutionary science, and which received its first great impetus with the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species, has gradually extended in scope until it has affected the entire intellectual life of our Western civilisation" (vii). Darwin's concepts of descent from animal species, of scientific determinism, the struggle for life, adaptation, and progress made their way into all aspects of intellectual production and influenced the development of eugenics and social sciences as part of this new evolutionary paradigm of life. It makes sense, then, that literature—in representing, challenging, and critiquing culture— would appropriate and aesthetically transform this ubiquitous theory. By addressing the extent and depth of that influence in . . .

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